Polish gays shamefully interned during WWII
The Second World War and it’s aftermath brought about many actions which were at least questionable in their wisdom; William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) being executed for Treason, when as an Irish citizen, he could not be guilty of treason to the British state; Werner Von Braun, who used Jewish slave labour, given freedom by the USA in return for helping their space programme; Rudolf Hess, guilty of the death of millions, being jailed for life in Spandau Prison, when many below him were executed. Now historian Simon Webb has uncovered possibly one of the most shameful litanies of all; the incarceration of gay Polish men in concentration camps in Scotland.
The background to this was that after the fall of France in 1940, 30,000 Polish troops who had been fighting alongside the French in an effort to stave off the Nazi advance were evacuated to the UK. These troops were sent to Scotland to be a front line of defence in the event of a Nazi landing. Their commander was former Prime Minister of Poland, General Wladyslaw Sikorski. Sikorski was anything but popular among the Poles, and opposition groups sprang up against him. His solution was to silence any and all dissenting voices. On 18 July 1940, General Sikorski told the Polish National Council in London: “There is no Polish judiciary. Those who conspire will be sent to a concentration camp.” As he and his forces would be in the UK for the foreseeable future, the British High Command fully realised that he intended these camps to be placed on British soil.
Sikorski sent a secret order to General Marian Kukiel, appointed Commander of Camps and Army Units in Scotland, naming officers and others whom he wanted to be placed in special camps. Not only did this include political rivals or those who dared to question him, but what Sikorski described as “Person of improper moral level.” and for him that met drunkards, gamblers, the sexually promiscuous, and especially, homosexual men, for whom Sikorski had a particular dislike.
Sikorski basically decided to lock up anyone who disagreed with his government-in-exile, and anyone he had a personal distaste towards, and the British High Command where more than willing to accommodate his demands. Political opponents – real or imagined, generals, drunks, gamblers, the sexually liberal, and gay men, were rounded up, and sent to the first of many of his concentration camps, on the Isle of Bute.
Bute, in the news recently as the new home for some of the first Syrian refugees in Scotland, is a gorgeous little island, once a popular holiday destination for Glaswegians “gaun doon that watter”, which sits in the Firth of Clyd and which looks over to the breathtaking mountain scenery of the Cowal Peninsula. In the winter however, it is exposed and suffers the brunt of storms which sweep up the Clyde estuary from the North Atlantic Ocean. The first men to arrive were not even given proper barracks but instead were housed in nothing more than tents. Neither were all interned in the camp military men, but included civilians such as Michael Grazynski, President of the Polish Scouting Association, and Marian Zyndram-Kosciakowlski; who was Prime Minister of Poland from 1935-1939.
A toxic situation soon occurred in the Bute camp, when senior officers refused to have anything to do with the “pathological” prisoners; namely the drunkards and the homosexuals, the latter of whom naturally grouped together in the face of this open hostility. Whether there were gay liaisons in the Bute camp is unknown, however accusations of such were rife, and this led to the decision to separate the “pathological” cases from the political prisoners. As homosexual behaviour was an illegal and imprisonable offence in the UK at this time, it is doubtful that many in parliament as much as raised an eyebrow at this situation.
A new and harsher camp (if that were possible) was opened at Tighnabruich in Argyll, opposite the Isle of Bute. All gay prisoners were sent there and the commander was Colonel Wladyslaw Spalek. Further camps were built at Auchterarder in Perthshire, Kingledoors in Tweedsmuir, and Inverkeithing in Fife. They operated from 1941 and continued to operate even after the war, right up to 1946.
These camps were made possible by the Allied Forces Act, 1940, which enabled Allied commanders on British soil to rule over their own people as they saw fit. Under this act, governments-in-exile of Poland, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium and Czechoslovakia the legal right to raise – and conscript – their own independent forces from among citizens of their countries resident in the British Isles. It also gave them the power to take punitive measures against any dissenters. All army camps and bases of these countries were considered sovereign territory of the Allied forces overseeing them, immune from interference by UK police or other authorities. This effectively gave General Sikorski free rein to behave as he liked towards his own countrymen in Scotland. This inevitably led to abuses of the Allied Forces Act and atrocities which UK authorities were powerless to prevent. Basically Sikorski could conscript any Polish man living in the UK, then if he were a political opponent, gay, or below Sikorski’s standards, he could be arrested by Military Police and interned in a concentration camp.
And for Sikorski, this did not merely mean political opponents, gays, drunkards or the like. Communists, and more controversially Jews, in Scotland soon found themselves being rounded up and placed in the camps. Isaac Deutscher was a journalist, writer, and the biographer of Joseph Stalin. A Jew and a proud Pole, he moved to Scotland after the fall of France and was all too willing to join up with the Polish forces to play his part in the Allied war effort. His reward was, no sooner than enlisting, to find himself arrested and interned on the camp on Bute.
Obviously, with camps near to centres of population, word was soon to leak out. Inverkeithing is a major town, was then an important port, nearby to Rosyth Naval Dockyard, and was a mere 14 miles from Edinburgh, the Scottish capital. Rumours started to fly that people were being held in camps in Scotland for what appeared no reason whatsoever. Moreover, there appeared to be a disturbing number of Jews being held in these camps. Some of the camps, including Inverkeithing, had basic barrack conditions, barbed wire surrounding them, and watchtowers with armed guards. Among the rumours were stories of maltreatment, starvation, beatings and even the death of inmates. It is known that on 29 October 1940, a Jewish prisoner called Edward Jakubowsky was shot dead at Kingledoors, for insulting a guard.
On 19 February 1941, Samuel Silverman, MP for Nelson and Colne, raised the question in the House of Commons on the whereabouts of two Jewish brothers called Benjamin and Jack Ajzenberg, who had been arrested by Polish soldiers in London and taken to a camp in Scotland. Adam McKinley, MP for Dumbartonshire in Scotland, the following year asked in the House what was happening on the Isle of Bute. As the government had no wish to upset the Polish allies, they would give no information. Asides from which, the Allied Forces Act made if impossible for them to act or even investigate.
On 14 June 1945, Robert McIntyre, the Member for the Scottish constituency of Motherwell, stood up in the House of Commons and asked the following question:
“Will the government make provision for the inspection, at any time, by representatives of the various districts of Scotland of any penal settlements, concentration camps, detention barracks, prisons, etc. within their area, whether these institutions are under the control of the British, American, French or Polish governments or any other authority; and for the issuing of a public report by those representatives?”
On the same day, Moscow Radion made the same accusation, concerning a Jewish academic called Dr Jan Jagodzinski in a camp at Inverkeithing. The British and then the world press was soon alight with tales of concentration camps in Scotland, and by now with the full horrors of the Nazi death camps being known, the people demanded to know what the hell was going on.
In an attempt to diffuse the situation, the Polish Government-in-Exile invited the press to visit the camp to Inverkeithing, to prove the prisoners were being treated well. This was exactly the same tactics of the Nazis, who reserved a few camps with good conditions, to allay any accusations of ill-treatment. This Polish exercise in propaganda failed to convince the press or the people, particularly when the first prisoner to whom reporters spoke turned out to be yet another Jew, by the name of Josef Dobosiewicz, who told the press that a prisoner had recently been shot dead in the camp. The commandant confirmed that this was correct, but that the man had been trying to escape. Again, the Allied Forces Act made it impossible for British authorities to act.
Almost a year after the end of hostilities, men were still being held in the camps. Enter Willie Gallagher, Member of Parliament for West Fife, and the only Communist to have taken a seat in the House of Commons. On 16 April 1946, Gallagher asked the Secretary of State for War to look into the case of two more Jews being held in a camp in Scotland; David Glicenstein and Shimon Getreudhendler. Given that Inverkeithing was in Gallagher’s constituency, one can only assume that these men were in that camp.
The exact date is unknown, but shortly afterwards, the Polish concentration camps were quietly wound down and closed. The Allied Forces Act was eventually rescinded in 1951.
British High Command was never blameless during the Second World War, and actions were taken either through error, or sheer bloodymindedness. In 1940 for instance, the British government decided to round up a number of German immigrants and intern them. They were hoarded onto the vessel HMT Dunera, and shipped off to Australia, where they were held in what can only be described as a concentration camp in the blistering heat of the Australian outback. These internees were German alright – they were German Jewish refugees who had fled to the UK to escape the Nazis.
And one consequence of a British civil service cock-up also involved Scotland and had a particularly tragic outcome. Camp 21 at Comrie was a Prisoner of War camp which housed some of the most dangerous and most fanatical Nazis captured, including brainwashed members of the Hitler Youth. Following an attempted breakout from a camp in Devizes in the south of England, a number of prisoners from there were transferred to Camp 21. Due to a clerical error, these included Feldwebel Wolfgang Rosterg, a known anti-Nazi and spy, who had informed the Devizes guards of the planned breakout. Placed among the Hitler Youth, when word got out he was a spy, they carried out a kangaroo court and lynched him to death.
The Allied Forces Act however was an odious piece of legislation, which allowed General Wladyslaw Sikorski and those who followed him to behave no better than the Nazis, rounding up political opponents, communists, Jews, and anyone he deemed undesirable – of which gay men made a sizeable proportion, placing them in concentration camps, maltreating, beating, and even executing them at a whim, on UK soil.
Sikorski was undoubtedly a war criminal, every bit as guilty as those Nazis who persecuted and killed Jews, political opponents, communists, and of course, homosexuals. But the British High Command and the parliament of the day share his guilt, by enabling his excesses, and making themselves powerless to take action to stop him, and yes, by turning a blind eye to these atrocities to avoid upsetting an ally.